Here, however, Israel's path began to diverge from that of early America. The Native Americans were already badly weakened by epidemic disease and internecine conflict by the time European settlers arrived in force. Although bloody skirmishes between Europeans and Native Americans continued until well into the 20th century, by the mid-1700s the native population had ceased to pose an existential threat to the European colonists, and the emerging nation could turn its attention to other matters. To the colonists, all this was a sign of God's providence. To the Native Americans, it was just a tragedy.
In Palestine, things were different: the Arab inhabitants declined to die out of their own accord, leaving the Jewish settlers surrounded by displaced, aggrieved locals. Escalating attacks and counter-attacks embroiled the Israelis in a cycle of violence and retaliation. In 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state, war immediately broke out with Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq. Israel prevailed -- but in the nearly seven decades since then, Israel has remained in a state of intermittent war.
Israel's cycle of war and escalation broke out yet again last week, as Israel retaliated against Hamas rocket attacks by pounding Gaza from the air. In this conflict -- as in all of Israel's past conflicts -- Israel's military superiority (much of it thanks to U.S. weapons sales and aid) has made it a lopsided fight: as of Tuesday, five Israelis and 130 Palestinians had been killed. In the last Gaza conflict -- Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009 -- 13 Israelis and 1,400 Palestinians died during the three weeks of fighting. During the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon War, Lebanese casualties exceeded Israeli casualties by a factor of ten.
But Israel's immense military superiority has produced only illusory gains. What good is winning when winning only sows the seeds of the next conflict, one following another in rapid succession?
As Janine Zacharia, former Jerusalem bureau chief of the Washington Post, wrote last week, "Israel's response to these ongoing rocket attacks is justified. But being justified isn't the same thing as being smart. The truth is Israel has been engaged in a low-grade war with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip for five years now, with no plan besides a misguided military strategy for how to end it.... To be sure, Israel will once again achieve many of its short-term tactical goals...[but] in the end, Israel will be no safer, although it will surely be more alone in the world and living in a neighborhood that is less tolerant of its aggressive countermeasures."
Once, Israel represented a dream or freedom, safety, and peace for Europe's persecuted Jews. But decades of on-and-off war, suicide bombers, and rockets attacks have left Israel isolated, imperiled, and in danger of losing its soul. Each new round of asymmetric attacks from Palestinians or neighboring states triggers an outsized Israeli military response, which buys a few years of relative quiet, until the violence escalates again. And meanwhile, Israel has become a permanent garrison state, defined almost solely by its embattled status and losing, each year, a few more of its democratic traditions.
"Everyone is sad"
This isn't an "attack upon Israel." Suicide bombs and makeshift rockets are weapons of the weak, but they have left a trail of mangled, broken bodies all the same, and the Holocaust still casts a long shadow. By now, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are fighting the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Arabs displaced or killed by the Jewish settlers who created the state of Israel. Everyone's a victim, and everyone has become a perpetrator.
Slate's Dahlia Lithwick recently wrote the best essay I've seen yet on living in Israel during the current conflict: "[T]he harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side of this conflict don't constitute a conversation.... Scoring your own side's suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone -- absolutely everyone -- is suffering and sad, and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either.... Bombing the other side into oblivion is no more a solution than counting your dead children in public.... Please don't judge. Work toward solutions. Because everyone on every side of this is desperate. This isn't a way to live and we all know it."
In the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is a stronger side and a weaker side, but there is certainly no "right" side.